NEW YORK — Sean Potts, who learned to play the tin whistle from his grandfather in the 1930s and for a time made an international career out of it as a founding member of the traditional Irish band the Chieftains, died Feb. 11 in Dublin. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by his son Sean.
Mr. Potts was self-conscious as a boy because, unlike many of his peers, he was drawn to the old music his grandfather John would play with friends in the parlor of his house in Dublin. The grandfather, who had moved to the city from County Wexford, in southeastern Ireland, in 1891, favored tin whistles and uilleann pipes.
Sometimes, after tilling the soil of the small plot where the family grew vegetables during World War II, John Potts would play a tune, then insist that his grandson try to match him note for note.
“He’d correct me,” Sean Potts recalled in a radio interview. “He’d say: ‘Play that piece again, play it again and again. Hold on to that note.’ ”
Years later, after the Clancy Brothers found success in the 1950s playing traditional Irish music in the United States, Ireland itself became newly interested in its musical history. When new groups began performing, all that early practice with his grandfather paid off for Mr. Potts. He began playing with a fellow musician, Paddy Moloney, in the 1950s and joined him in 1962 when Moloney formed the Chieftains.
Over the next 15 years or so, the Chieftains moved from small stages in Ireland to touring the United States. They eventually signed with Island Records and established themselves, counter-intuitively, as crossover artists, sometimes performing with rock groups, including the Grateful Dead.
“They’re about the most unlikely candidates for big-time pop music stardom that have come along in quite some time,” critic John Rockwell wrote of the Chieftains in the New York Times in 1975, when they played their first major New York concert, at Lincoln Center.
Mr. Potts was integral to the group, taking stirring solos on his tiny tin whistle. But weary of the road, he chose to leave the Chieftains in 1979 and stay in Ireland while the band’s star was still rising.
He remained committed to traditional Irish music. He formed popular groups of his own, including Bakerswell, which toured the United States, and became a leader of the group Na Piobairi Uilleann, which promotes the uilleann pipes, the instrument his grandfather loved most but which Mr. Potts never took to as a boy. The uilleann pipes are similar to bagpipes but use the elbow to generate air for making sound.
“He always felt the pipes were the iconic sound of Ireland,” said his son Sean, who plays the pipes.
Sean Desmond Potts was born in Dublin on Oct. 5, 1930. Even after he became a touring performer, he continued to work for much of his life with the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, the Irish postal service. He retired in 1985.
In addition to his son Sean, he leaves his wife, the former Bernadette Sanfey; another son, Ultan; two daughters, Sorcha and Cora Potts O’Rourke; brothers Eamon and Terry; sisters Noirin Kelly and Dorrie Roche; and seven grandchildren.
Mr. Potts’s earliest memories were of hearing players at his grandfather’s house in the evenings. “I can remember nothing about it except music, music, music, all the time,” he said.
Once his grandfather taught him to play the tin whistle, no one had to badger him to practice. Sometimes he would retreat to play in the bathroom after his mother had heard enough. Once, he recalled, when a neighbor heard her continued pleas for him to take a break, partly because she was worried he was bothering the woman, the neighbor called back, “Oh, Mrs. Potts, leave him at it, leave him at it.”